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Wednesday, March 28, 2018

A Bittersweet Farewell

I find myself in a melancholy mood tonight. It's the end of an era. A good long run has come to a close and I'm not sure I'm ready to say goodbye. So many good times were had, and yet, I have to accept that things change, that sometimes it's best to let go.

I bought my Honda on January 7, 1990. It was only 7 miles old when I found it sitting on a lot, all shiny and beautiful in the falling rain. I took it for a test drive, marveling at the peppy 5-speed manual transmission and the fact that when I stepped on the gas, it not only went forward, it actually went quickly (I was driving a 1971 VW bug at the time, so it wasn't a very high bar). And the color! Sonoma Red. The stars couldn't have been more perfectly aligned.

I sat down with the sales guy and danced the dance, you know the one. "Let me check with my manager and see what he is willing to do. You're asking for a lot, you have to let us make a little money on this, right?" In the end, I paid $10,000 for it, probably not the best deal ever made. I shook on it and promptly felt a little nauseous. It was the biggest purchase I had ever made on my own at that point in my life. Come to think, probably the biggest one I will ever make by myself —in October of that same year Mark and I got married. From then on, all purchases have been made mutually.

From the official Honda Civic brochure, which I still have and will pass on to the new owner. Note the hot 1.5 liter engine. 92 horsepower!

This car has been amazing. It truly is bigger on the inside than it looks on the outside. The back seats flip down flat and it has the capacity of a small truck. We helped friends move, transported bags of soil, loads of lumber, stacks of bricks. We carried a succession of big dogs back and forth to the vet, to the beach, to the lake. We were able to fit two adults, two dogs, a full sized ice chest, sleeping bags and an overnight bag in that car and it still managed to get up the hills to the coast and back. And that was at the ripe old age of twenty-seven.

The little engine that could, and still does 28 years later.
If dog years are seven-to-one, what are car years? I'm not sure. I am sure we have the oldest car on the road that is still running on the original clutch and engine, at least that I personally know about. Sure, it leaks a little oil and in a heavy rain, water seeps in through one of the taillights. The throwout bearing has been making a growling noise for a while now, but our mechanic said to wait until the clutch goes out, so he can replace both at once. That was about five years ago. The clutch, so far, has held out.

We cleaned it up last weekend, using an entire roll of duct tape to lift generations of dog hair out of the carpets. Mark pulled the ashtray out of the dash and found a tiny sand dollar, the very one we found on the beach on one of the car's first road trips. We had gone to Point Reyes in celebration of the 2nd anniversary of our first date. We decided to leave it in there; somehow it doesn't belong anywhere else.
One of the many features of this vehicle is
crank windows and non-electric locks. Hey, less to break!

Custom stereo and high tech heating system.
No A/C of course, that's what the crank windows are for.
It's a funny thing. When you have something so long it becomes wrapped up with people and events in your life. I've had that car more than half my life. It seems so strange to say that. I remember driving my first dog to the vet one day and getting that dreaded diagnosis: cancer. Up to that point, our dogs always had to stay in the back cargo area. After the appointment, I loaded her up into the passenger seat next to me, face streaming with tears. "No more back seat for you," I promised, "you can ride shotgun from now on." It's strange to think that there is probably a stray hair or two still embedded in the seat from that day.

The Honda was our carpool car when Mark and I worked together the first seven years of it's life, the car we took to the grocery store, the mall, the airport, the local hiking trails. We crammed family and friends in the back to go to dinner and movies. I gave my father rides to his doctor's appointments when he was seriously ill and drove Mark to the emergency room after a few unfortunate accidents. We arrived to weddings, baby showers, parties and funerals in it. When they saw it around town, friends always knew which one of us was driving by how it took the corners; I'll let you guess who went the fastest.

In 2006 we decided to get a new car. The Honda was getting up there, and with gas prices rising to $4/gallon it was getting really expensive for Mark to drive the truck back and forth to work. At that point, the Honda became Mark's daily driver. We figured it would last a few more years and we'd eventually look for a small car to replace it, maybe another hatchback that got good mileage. Twelve years later, he finally found what he was looking for, a brand new shiny Ford Focus ST (that stands for Super Terrific, just ask him).

The Honda, with the bratty new car lurking in the background.

There are so many registration stickers on the back plate they're a quarter inch thick.

I couldn't bear to turn the Honda over to the state for the rebate. I know it's got more miles left in it, and I know someone with the right state of mind and a light clutch foot will appreciate it as much as we have. We spent the weekend cleaning it out for it's new owner, a guy from my work that lives in the neighborhood. I take comfort in the thought that I'll still see it in the parking lot during the week, and that it will still be tooling around town picking up groceries or going out to the coast. As sad as it is, it's time.

All I ask is that this new car holds up as well; I expect it to continue running on it's original engine and clutch through 2046, twenty-eight short years. At that point, we'll be faced with a dilemma: find another sporty hatchback (maybe one that flies?) or surrender our driver's license since we'll both be 82 years old by then.

We'll cross that bridge when we come to it.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Relief: A Trip to Maui

Sometimes things don't go our way. Work is crazy, the weather sucks, it's dark, cold and gloomy and spring seems so far away it doesn't feel we'll live long enough to see it. What do you do when that happens? Eat more? Binge watch Breaking Bad (again)? Pull the covers over your head and set the alarm for April?

After the October fires, Mark was buried in non-stop fire recovery at work and getting more and more exhausted and irritable. He was stressed and over-tired, and it was quickly turning into depression and hopelessness. The only thing that seemed to cheer him was talking with our friends about upcoming camping trips, but the earliest of plans were for May of 2018, a whole 6 months away. We needed something more immediate, something to look forward to, somewhere warm and sunny and relaxed. The remedy was obvious.

Hawaii's state fish

Calling the Hawaiian Islands paradise might seem like a cliche, but only to those who've never been. It is without doubt the most relaxing and enjoyable place I have ever visited. A year round temperature range of 72 to 85 degrees, surrounded by warm ocean water and coral reefs teaming with tropical fish. Sleeping with the windows open and feeling the trade winds blow over you as the sound of waves lull you to sleep is truly the best way to relax. Sure, it's expensive, but every now and then there is nothing else that will do.

Once we made up our minds to go we sat down and made reservations late one December night in a frenzy of web searches and adrenaline that ended with a high five and sigh of relief (pro tip: never book your flight until you've reserved a rental unit, that was a nailbiter!). Oh, and a condo on the beach in Maui for early February.
Hawaii Checklist:
Dog sitter
Airline tickets
Airport parking
Rental car
Rental condominium
Rental snorkeling gear
Snorkeling excursion to the island of Lanai

As soon as the details were settled, the anticipation set in. Mark set a countdown clock on his computer at work and sent me screenshots twice a day. We debated getting a new underwater camera. We toyed with getting new swimsuits. We were packed two weeks before our departure. It seemed to take forever, but the day finally came. We took off for the airport at 4:30 on a Saturday morning, where we made it in time to have the ceremonial over-priced Bloody Mary at the airport bar before our plane loaded.

We spent a glorious week tooling around the island of Maui in our rented jeep, visiting all the best snorkeling spots we had found on the last trip and finding new ones, always finishing the day at Ululani's Shave Ice shop for some frosty treats. We went out to dinner a few times, but mostly cooked for ourselves on the shared barbecue grills at the condo (food there is very expensive, and a nice dinner out for two with drinks and dessert can easily put you back $200).
Food trucks are another option.
This one was excellent; a full day of snorkeling makes for a hungry belly.

Although the Big Island of Hawaii is our favorite, we chose Maui because of the proximity to the humpback whales. Every year between January and March, hundreds of humpback whales go to Hawaii to have their young and raise them until they are big and strong enough to go to feeding grounds in Alaska and the Bering Sea. It's an incredible sight to see the whales breaching and tail slapping, right from the beach. We saw them from above out the airplane window on our flight in, watched them from our condo's lawn, heard them "talk" while snorkeling. It's amazing, exciting and humbling to see these giants out there, especially up close from a small boat.

Snorkeling is really our main pursuit when in Hawaii. Mark is SCUBA certified and has been diving in the frigid waters off our coast since he was a teen, but that experience is nothing compared to the tropical waters of the South Pacific. The water is clear and warm, the fish are more colorful and plentiful, and come on, sea turtles? whales? How can you beat that? We grabbed a quick breakfast and were on the beach most mornings by 8:00am, donning our fins and masks and running into the surf. We came away with hundreds of pictures; I won't bore you with all of them, but here are a few:

An eel hunts for lunch in the reef.
The reefs around Maui are teaming with fish. Every day we saw something new.
These urchins actually eat into the coral, creating weird patterns.
Convict fish
A Spotted Moray eel tries to intimidate the camera
A Boxfish wanders around
Mark chased this White Tipped Reef shark trying to get a better photo.
He assured me they weren't too dangerous.
I guess he was right, since he still has all his limbs.
We found this large conch laying on the reef floor.
It looked like something had torn it from it's moorings, but the snail was still inside.
Here's the view from the top.
Green Sea turtles were everywhere. Being a protected endangered species, you're not supposed to bother them. That said, they have really bad eyesight so sometimes they swim right up to you. I was once rear-ended by one — scared the crap out of me.

A little video of a curious green sea turtle that swam by us. Listen carefully and you'll hear the humpback whales talking in the background:

We splurged on a boat trip around Lanai, the closest in the Hawaiian island chain to Maui. Lanai is much less crowded, and has some stunning sea cliffs and coral reefs surrounding it. The only way to get there is an expensive plane ride (or private jet), ferry, or one of these excursions. Although the wind didn't cooperate that day, we did get in some snorkeling and a front row seat to the whales.

See below for a short video taken from the boat. Sorry for the shaky camera work; the boat was tiny, the whales enormous, and the water rough:

The wind was really blowing that day. It made for a rough ride but dramatic photos.
The sea cliffs on the west side of Lanai are beautiful.
The north side of Lanai has many WWII ships that were intentionally grounded here when no longer needed.
The front of a concrete Liberty ship that broke free of it's moorings and ended up here.

The back. You can see how the waves have broken away the concrete, leaving the rusting rebar exposed.

About halfway through our trip, we received an email with a surprise message. We were being gifted a helicopter tour, something we had thought about doing before but could never justify the cost. Our excitement was confirmed from the moment we sat down in the front seat, the closest to a bird's eye view of the island you can get.

Our pilot Dylan was so laid back we worried he might be medicated. I think living in Hawaii will do that to a person; even Mark was relaxed about everything, including two trips during which his motion sickness could have been a real buzz kill (he was fine by the way, thanks to Bonine).

Our trip included a ride through the canyons of north Maui, then up the coast of Molokai. On our way across the channel between islands, we saw more whales and Dylan lowered and circled the helicopter so we could get a better look.

Although it is an expensive excursion, if you can swing it I highly recommend it. It really is a view of Hawaii you can't get any other way.

Dylan was kind enough to take our picture together.
Of course, the helicopter photobombed us.
Taking off from the Kahului heliport.
It was cloudy, but it made for a more dramatic photos.
The cliffs of Molokai are the tallest sea cliffs in the world,  some up to 3900'
Molokai is also home to a 25 mile long coral reef. Since the island is sparsely populated and gets comparatively few visitors, the reefs are in pristine condition. We are planning our next Hawaiian adventure there.
We landed on the north shore of Maui. Here Mark is talking with pilot Dylan about helicopters. Mark came away from this trip with a new goal: get a helicopter pilot license. God help me.
Here's a little video from the trip, flying along the cliffs of Molokai's north shore:

There are other things to do that don't involve swimming. We spent one rainy day walking around the Maui Ocean Center, a nice little aquarium. While it's geared for kids, we learned a lot talking with the workers about the difference between urchins types and asking about some of the fish we had seen snorkeling.
Of course Mark had to risk life and limb again, but made it out unscathed.
Maui Ocean Center
We also spent some time walking around the Kealia Pond Refuge. In the winter, this natural pond fills and attracts migrant birds and native shore birds. There's a new walkway that leads out across the pond, getting you closer to nesting sites and the birds themselves. It was a nice way to spend an afternoon.
The boardwalk had benches and information panels built along the way.
Black crown night heron hunt for small fish in the stream leading out to the ocean.
These white egrets are not native to the islands, but they're ubiquitous around Maui. You see them following the gardeners as they mow the lawns around the resorts, picking at the freshly mown grass for insects. It's amazing more don't get run over, they follow so closely.
The pond was full from all the rain Maui had gotten in the last few weeks.

We were rained out one day so we decided to take a little road trip to the Iao Valley State Monument. When I say rain, what I really mean is RAIN. Hawaii is surrounded by warm ocean water, and when the trade winds don't blow in their normal fashion, the clouds suck up moisture from the ocean and gather right over the island, where they unleash a torrent of water. The volcanic soil doesn't hold a lot, and the steep mountains funnel everything back down to the sea. The streams became rivers, the roads flooded over, and it was chaos that morning. But it was warm so it didn't stop us from running around in our shorts and t-shirts, giggling like school children. It also didn't hurt that we had rented a relatively high clearance jeep, so driving through the ever deepening puddles in the road was not a problem.

Iao Valley has a sad history. It was here that King Kamehameha fought a battle with the ruler of Maui. He brought a huge army and cannons, which he used to kill so many of the opposing forces the bodies dammed up the stream as the women and children watched from the cliffs above. Kamehameha eventually won, taking over control of Maui and eventually the entire Hawaiian island chain.

It's a pretty park, with gardens and demonstration plantings of taro. There's a little covered hut at the end of the trail in case you get caught in a rain storm. We made good use of it this trip.
There were waterfalls in every crevice of the park.
The streams were more like rivers that day.
The ravines of the valley were filled with rain clouds
The gardens, a little waterlogged.
Taro, up close
The Iao Needle

This trip was probably the most necessary thing we've ever spent hard earned money on. By the time we boarded the plane home we had shed every worry that had seemed so overwhelming when we left; Mark had plans to become a helicopter pilot, I had the outline of a roving bakery business going in my head and we were ready to sell the house and move to the islands. Perhaps not realistic, but a dream that will (hopefully) sustain us until the next time we make it back to the Hawaiian Islands.

A hui kaua (until we meet again)

Sunday, December 31, 2017

2018: Do A Good Turn Daily

I got one of my favorite Christmas gifts of all time this year: a letter from my 12 year old father.

Hear me out.

After my father died, my Mom eventually moved into a smaller house. It didn't make sense for her to be living in a five bedroom home all by herself, and we thought it would be nice to have her closer to where her kids were living in case she needed anything. Unfortunately, having a five bedroom home meant five bedrooms (plus living, family and dining rooms and a large workshop) worth of stuff to pack. It was overwhelming at the time, but after many trips to Goodwill and a giant garage sale, we were able to fit her into the two bedroom home in which she now resides. During that process, whenever we came across anything sentimental that we couldn't bear to throw away, we tossed it into a "keeper" box. Then another. Pretty soon we had a stack of these boxes, but with no time to go through them they ended up in my brother's garage to be perused at another time.

That was in 2006.

For Christmas this year, my brother found something for each of us from those boxes and put it in our stockings. I received this letter:

Click to enlarge

My father was in the Boy Scouts throughout his childhood, and was shipped off to camp every year. I love this letterhead, and I love how my grandmother made out the envelope and put the (3 cent!) stamp on it to ensure her only child wrote to her. I also like how, instead of a date, he wrote "2nd day".

Here's the text:

Dear Mom and Dad,

Having wonderful time. Am on Kp today, food is good. Only two things I don't like dust and bugs. Here they change everything. I am now a neifight*. Am also in skunk patrol, troop two.

                     Your little stinker,

P.S. Write to me please.

(*Did he mean neophyte? Not sure.)

It kills me to read that he didn't like the dust and bugs, considering what he put us kids through during our childhoods: Annual autumn firewood gathering trips where we worked in the hot sun chopping down unwanted trees from his friends and co-workers orchards/ranches/backyards; camping out at the coast in the wind and sand; one particularly awful trip where we tried to sleep on the boat while moored in the Sacramento Delta, mosquitos swarming around our sweaty heads so thick that in the morning we found dead ones caked to our faces where we had swatted them in the night.

I know he was only twelve when he wrote this, and he probably missed his parents something fierce. I like his postscript: Write to me please. Something from home always makes things better.

2017 has been particularly trying. Disturbing trends in political discourse, some disappointing directions in public land management, and of course the fires that have disrupted so many parts of everyone's lives here. It's hard to find the bright side sometimes. This cheerful letter from 1950 and it's 3 cent stamp, with news of skunk patrols and dust and bugs, put a smile on my face. And at the very bottom, a motto I think we should all take to heart in the coming year:

Do a good turn daily.

Happy New Year everyone.